Thursday, August 5, 2010

Too Much of a Good Thing?

I am always game to try different approaches and hear about alternative ways to resolve common riding problems. But the increasing popularity of "western dressage" and the proliferation of "natural horsemanship" guru's needs to be considered from all angles. I strongly believe that these different forms of riding can be very useful to those of us in the dressage community. I personally hired a working cow horse/reining trainer(who also happens to be a good friend I'd seen start colt after colt) to start my 2 yr. old. Will I keep all the things he taught Frisco? No. But, his help was invaluable to me, and I have taken many things he taught Frisco and reformulated them into a more dressage-specific language, and applied them to other horses. One of my longest-term clients(who again happens to be a good friend whom I'd seen start filly after filly) has a significant amount of experience with Parelli and its offshoots. These two people have filled a huge void in my education as a rider and instructor, by giving me wonderful background in some things dressage riders frequently overlook...ground manners, yielding to pressure, and ground work designed to establish the human as the leader.
But after sitting in the Utah Dressage Society's "L" Program D-2 session this past weekend and watching rider after rider go around the arena with zero contact on the reins, and the impact of that approach on the harmony of the picture, I think I must play devil's advocate with the whole "lightness/yield to pressure" mindset that seems to have infiltrated our sport. OF COURSE we seek lightness. OF COURSE we need our horses to yield to pressure. But, this sport requires a significant amount of core strength, self carriage, and balance from both the rider as well as the horse. One of the most important aspects of our sport, sitting just above rhythm and relaxation on the training pyramid, is...CONNECTION. It is simply impossible to correctly develop a dressage horse's musculature over the course of many years without it. Muscles can only develop when they are engaged and asked to work. Slack toplines and slack reins do not equal relaxation my friends. Sawing the reins in the quest for a yield to pressure does not develop acceptance of the bridle. It only irritates the poor horse, making him wonder when next his teeth will be chattered, and is a dead giveaway to the judge that the connection of your seat to your horse's back is non-existent. The only way a horse can carry itself around the arena with the rider bearing only the weight of the reins in her hands is if that horse, and that rider, are so completely engaged in their cores, and so completely in balance with each other, that the horse no longer needs the support of the reins, and can "push back" from the bit, in 100% self carriage. I saw a lot of slack reins, or worse, long reins, but, not one horse did I see pushing itself back off the bit and carrying itself with a rider in perfect harmony. I dare say this misguided obsession with light reins is actually more detrimental to the horse's back and brain than the tight, short reins of a horse being ridden front to back. At least the latter horse knows he's not going to get a punch in the mouth at the end of the long side, and has a shot at bracing his back and underneck to protect himself against that death grip and the inevitable behind the vertical position of the rider as she digs her seat bones in a quest for "forward". Neither picture sounds very pleasant, does it? Neither is on the right track when it comes to that third tier of the training pyramind, connection. All I'm asking, fellow riders, is that you consider all the ramifications when you try new things. There is a reason why all the old books, all the old masters, all the old school trainers, demand that you learn to use your seat and position correctly. There are simply no shortcuts in this sport. Don't be seduced!